Respect Our Referenda

The student voice should not be ignored

Last week, we learned that the three referenda on this year’s Undergraduate Council ballot passed by large majorities. The proposals, advocating University divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the establishment of a social choice endowment fund, and a reworking of the College's sexual assault policies, garnered 72 percent, 80.5 percent, and 85 percent of the vote, respectively. One might expect that, after receiving resounding student approval, these policies would receive carful review from the administration. After all, it wouldn’t take much for University administrators to constructively engage with the ideas in each of these proposals, and overwhelming student support offers ample reason to do so—especially when it comes to issues, like the sexual assault policy revision, which primarily affect undergraduates. Yet, the University has, by all appearances, deigned to treat the student referenda as inconsequential. It is disturbing that the administration has chosen to display such a cold disregard for the voice of the student body.

Prior even to the passage of the referenda, Dean Hammonds said, “there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before [the sexual assault policy referendum] becomes the basis for changes.” It is apparent that Dean Hammonds does not consider undergraduate referenda sufficient reason to reexamine policies that almost exclusively affect undergraduate life. Similarly, shortly after the passage of the referenda, Harvard Director of News and Media Relations Kevin Galvin mirrored this sentiment. He said in an email statement to the Crimson that “Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels”—writing off, it seems, a reexamination of investment practices, despite a resounding call from the student body to the contrary. Of course, we do not expect that undergraduate plebiscites unilaterally dictate Harvard’s investment decisions. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to receive indication that the undergraduate student body’s opinion holds very little weight in the minds of University administrators.  A proper response to these referenda will take into account the concerns of the University’s many constituent groups. But the first step is not stonewalling the student body.

Carrying the imprimatur of the democratic process, and the mandate of heavy majorities, these three referenda should prompt the administration to open up their closed doors, and to respect the student body’s role as a stakeholder and partner in governing the campus and University. Students like Kate Sim ’14 and Pearl Bhatnagar ’14, who proposed the referendum on sexual assault policy, should be welcomed into the meetings where the feasibility of changes to that policy are discussed. Representatives from Divest Harvard should have the chance to engage in a thoughtful face-to-face debate with the president of the University on the subject of fossil fuel divestment.

We are confident in the ability of Harvard student activists to effect change, regardless of how receptive the administration initially appears. It is imperative that activists don’t prematurely give up the fight, as history shows us that the administration usually comes around in due time, once pressure multiplies.

But with the referenda process, the ball is in the administration’s court. It should not take weeks of sleeping outside in tents to bring student activists to the negotiating table with President Faust. The administration has been given a unique chance to inaugurate a new era of responsiveness to and partnership with students, and we expect them to do so.